I decided to go to the Philippines, because I was planning to visit Ako in Tokyo and had a few weeks to burn in Asia. Oddly enough I had never been to the Philippines and knew very little about things to do there, despite there being tons of Filipinos in Hawaii. Based on the suggestions of multiple people, I decided to explore the islands and soon found out there are so many places to see and traveling between destinations can take entire days. The Philippines remind me a lot of other South East Asia destinations like Thailand and Vietnam with better infrastructure in some ways and worse in others. I crafted my itinerary around (shark) diving, animals, cool natural landscapes, and a highly recommended Tao boat cruise exploring remote islands.
I started my trip in Malapascua Island off of the island of Cebu to do a few days of three-tank diving, featuring…thresher sharks!!! The 12-hour trip from Manila required a delayed plane, a taxi, a 5-hour bus, a negotiated ferry, and wandering around shacks and leashed fighting cocks to find the Exotic Island Dive Centre. I was a little worried that my first dive since January was going to be a 5am deep dive with thresher sharks, but I decided to decipher my uneasiness as excitement instead of total fear and go for it.
Surprisingly, the first day of diving was pretty chill on the panic front, but the next day was pretty panicky, especially during the early morning thresher shark dive. It was also the best dive of the trip (and according to my dive master, the best shark dive in his five years working there!). We saw 3-5 threshers (hard to tell whether the same ones were circling back) and the kicker…a cameo by a 1-2m baby whale shark…fuck yeah! Check out the videos on my FB post!
Shortly before the whale shark passed over head, I started to get panicky. It sometimes hits unexpectedly and is not always correlated with my mood before the dive. I get this urgent, primal need to swim back to the surface and have to breathe through it. More panic on the second dive that day on a wall with a little current that triggered a previous panicky dive in Indonesia. I breathed through both of them and had to put my hand on the dive guide on the thresher shark dive to steady myself in the current and in my mind. I made it through the panic to enjoy the rest of both dives. I’m tracking at about a quarter of my dives with some level of panic, which has become an important part of my diving experience and emotional journey. Being able to weather the storm vs. being perfect in avoiding storms has made me moe resilient in life, especially in surfing the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Animals / cool natural landscapes
The Philippines have a lot of random animals like tarsiers, crocs, and pythons with more lax regulations than fully developed nations! Some might argue it’s unethical to cage animals, even if it’s for conservation and education purposes. I generally agree but also love seeing animals upclose and sometimes touching them. Eek! I guess I’m not quite there yet with fully ethical treatment of animals.
Tao boat cruise from El Nido to Coron
Based on the strong reco from my sorority sister, Claire, I booked a 5-day, 4-night boat cruise from El Nido to Coron through some of the most beautiful remote islands I’ve ever seen. There were 24 of us from Canada and Europe, including a handful of Spaniards that I could chat and joke with in their native language! It was refreshing to be the only American.
The very chill trip was well-run with tons of gorgeous islands, snorkeling, good food, cheap drinks, and free bottles of dark rum which we passed around and swigged from like non-germophobic pirates. Highlights included awesome Filipino food and fish, line-caught fresh tuna sashimi, fresh pig roast (and witnessing the disturbing slaughter and cleaning – but hey, if you’re going to eat it, you should be able to see it die), shady boating (I hate excessive sun), free massages, limited mosquitos, cuddles with Bella the boat dog, teaching an impromptu yoga class in Spanish, rum-filled karaoke on the beach, and a great mix of very diverse people. Low lights: pretty constant stomach unhappiness from day 2 onwards (continuing even after the trip), mild jellyfish stings, and not sleeping really well every night.
Foods of Philippines
It was great to try a lot of different foods. I mostly stuck with the Chinese-influenced dishes like stir-fry veggies and steamed fresh fish with shoyu, ginger, and green onion. So good, especially Lapu Lapu, a local grouper! Such cheap seafood! My stomach didn’t fare too well on the Tao boat (hard to pinpoint the culprit but I’m guessing there were several, not the least being how to prepare all our meals with fresh seafood on a boat), but other than that, my delicate flower of a stomach held up pretty well. I didn’t get too adventurous with street food, except for the abalone on a sand bar, both from a sanitariness and shellfish allergy perspective.
After 2.5 weeks mostly in places with non-flush Filipino toilets (like boat heads with a bucket to pour water), asphyxiating tricycle tuk tuks, dangerous motorbike taxis, tropical bugs galore, and uncomfortable beds, I was stoked to have a much needed day in Manila to pamper myself in the Marriott. Thank you, Starwood points from my previous life! The juxtaposition was stark and made me appreciate the daily luxuries of first world living we usually take for granted.
Reflections on Solo Travel
5 years ago after the roughest breakup to date, one of the things I most worried about was traveling alone without a boyfriend. I’d cry (literally) to my mom: “Who’s going to drive the motorcycle in Burma?” She’d reply: “You are, silly! If it’s so important to you, you can learn to ride a motorcycle or fly a plane.” Well, I never did learn to do either of those things (yet), but as I reflect on this lazy siesta afternoon in Malapascua Island (Philippines), I’ve really come so far to embrace the solo trip. There are very few places in the world that I want to go that I don’t feel like I could do without someone I know…that’s not to say, I don’t prefer joining a volunteer program or tour to explore places more complicated for single women like Africa, though even organized tours seemed difficult to me at first.
Sure, solo trips suck in many ways than traveling with someone you know–it can be less fun, more lonely, less convenient, more expensive, less safe, scarier, less supportive especially when you get sick, and no one watches your bags while you pee. But it’s also thrilling in its own way, you make your own itinerary, set your own boundaries, listen to and serve your own needs, meet new people, re-invent yourself constantly, detox from social insecurity/FOMO (first by being immersed in it), and decide what/when you want to eat for dinner.
I’m sometimes oddly competitive, which creates a lot of FOMO when traveling with someone else, because suddenly there’s always a point of comparison. You might say it’s something to be addressed and eliminated but until then, it’s a fact that solo travel is less stressful with respect to fomo. I do things on my own time and beat. I hang out with people when I want to and don’t when I don’t want to.
I think I now prefer traveling solo or at least equally to traveling with friends, family, and partners. I’ve come to enjoy time with myself more, and I can decide what’s right for me. I meet cool new people constantly in travel-y places like the Philippines where you can meet other travelers on tours and in restaurants. It’s a bit harder in big cities where people are bustling around in their normal daily routines with limited time or emotional bandwidth to connect with new people. On this trip, I joined a tour, where I was the only one not on their family reunion so they became my adopted Filipino family for the day. I met groups of girls in two towns and later organized dinner with both groups in a totally different town. That’s the beauty of backpacker-y destinations.
I also find that technology and social media allow me to stay connected with friends around the world, so I rarely feel lonely regardless of what time zone I’m in since I have friends in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. For example, I still get my pirated downloads of Games of Thrones from my buddy in Mexico who used to throw GoT viewing parties. And we still have spirited and critical discussions on the latest episode by Messenger now. (Social media can also make it difficult to avoid spoilers, which have become a modern annoyance of time-shifted viewing.) The point being…technology has shrunk the world for better or for worse!
I’m not saying rolling solo is better than a table for two, but an ease with solo travel provides more flexibility in how you explore the world. You’re not totally dependent on other people to see a part of the world you’re interested in. In fact, I’m now a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to travel with someone else, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there…